In a world of increasing complexities, let us pause to celebrate pure simplicity. For this comforting respite, we can thank the character and stupidity of our enemies and the technology of the television age.
Two years ago it was the vengeful figure of the ayatollah, a demon appropriately garbed in black, who came to personify all our expectations of evil. Now it is the cloaked figure of Qaddafi, an ominous looking and sounding spook, breathing venom and staring and twitching disturbingly before our eyes, who rivets our attention.
They are horrors, all right, and deserve the scorn we give them. If we tried we couldn't pick better villains, or perhaps it is they who know best how to bedevil us.
That they are a problem for the United States, one we must confront, no one realistically can deny. Agreement on the threat they represent probably is one of the few areas of consensus in the country today. But they represent something else not so well understood or discussed, and there the simplicity ends.
The problem is we know as little about them as they so obviously do about us. And, in today's world, that isn't good enough. Recent history hammers home, or should have, a lesson about how poorly prepared we are to deal with these crises from afar that keep arising, especially those in the vitally important Middle East.
With Iran, and now with Libya, the United States found itself reacting to a situation that seemed to have sprung up overnight. Each took the public by surprise.
The only common denominator appears to be a virulent anti-Americanism so extreme and violent as to border on madness.
As always in the midst of great emotion created by sudden dramatic events--the taking of our hostages in the first part, the extraordinary airing of death plots against our president and top leaders in the next--the American people responded as expected. They rallied around the president in common cause, and common anger.
In such an atmosphere of crisis, public attitudes harden. The picture we hold of the enemy becomes a caricature. Any attempt to understand the roots of the difficulties inevitably gets lost in the emotion of the moment. We are forced to react without fully knowing why we are in the crisis that surrounds us. We are even less adequately prepared to deal with the next act in the drama. And surely there will be one.
Entirely aside from the personalities involved, and no matter how menacing or irrational the ayatollahs and Qaddafis may be, the Iranian and Libyan episodes demonstrate how little we know about the history, culture and traditions that shape attitudes there, and thus directly affect us.
Some smattering of recollection remains of Iranian glories past growing out of the long history of the Persian Empire, but we know next to nothing about Libya, a land that has experienced more than enough woe down through the centuries.
In history Libya stands as a classic example of a pawn of greater states. From antiquity it has been ruled by foreigners, a desert colony of the Greeks, the Romans, the Phoenicians, the Ottoman Turks and, in this century, the Italians. It "emerged," as the expression has it, as an independent, sovereign nation only three decades ago. In fact, it fell much within our orbit, as did Iran, in the postwar era.
Because its material wealth was considered negligible, its value largely was as a strategically located nation fronting on 1,400 miles of Mediterranean coastline and offering a direct way into the inland riches of Africa.
Until very recent years, it remained what it always had been: an impoverished, sparsely settled, nomadic country whose people were deprecatingly referred to as "Palm tree Arabs" situated in a desert wasteland that encompasses 93 percent of its land. Then, toward the end of the 1950s, its fortunes and place in the world changed dramatically.
Oil was discovered, a happy circumstance under any conditions, but especially so for Libya.
What came out of its desert sands was a highly prized form of petroleum, so-called "sweet crude," easily and profitably refined into gasoline. We have profited handsomely from business with Libya, and Libyans from their dealings with us. From one of the world's poorest nations Libya became one of the wealthiest, boasting one of the third world's most ambitious educational programs.
Its sudden wealth has also been put to other purposes. Libya, as has been reported so often recently, has become a vast storehouse for modern weaponry, much of it Soviet-made. And, without question, it has bankrolled the training and equipping of terrorists, some of whom apparently have been trained by Americans, just as we trained the late shah of Iran's notorious secret police, Savak.
For Americans, the great lesson from the last world war involved military preparedness. In today's infinitely more complex world, other kinds of preparedness are required.
We need to know more about the economic forces shaping these critical, volatile new nations, to understand their history, their culture, their religious heritage, and a great deal more about the people who lead them.
The challenge is one facing all of American society, from our schools and press to our governmental leaders, all of whose job it is to inform their fellow citizens better about the reality of the world in which they live, and can reasonably expect to face in the future. To put it bluntly, we've been flunking this test.
It's not a matter of do-good innocent Americans wanting to be loved by reaching out, in our old missionary style, with our familiar flabby philanthropical impulses, to alien cultures. It's a matter of pure self-interest, perhaps even survival. Before we can deal with our enemies properly, we have to understand them. At least we ought to know that they are something more solid than phantoms on a TV screen.